Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Going online in the classroom and in my life

This is an article I wrote for the mELTing pot Extra, the IATEFL-Hungary magazine published for the IATEFL conference 2009.

It was interesting to read it again. I would probably change a few ideas here and there. I'm on twitter, Mark :-) and I'm loving it! Not to mention the blog I'm writing at this very minute.
Mind you, we just had 3 days of no internet access again, and it made me realise how much I missed following tweets and reading blogs and ...see what's out there and get new ideas.

I have just found an interesting article that supports the idea I wrote in the last paragraph a year ago. Although it is on education in the US, it's definitely true for Hungary as well as Eastern Europe, I think. So educators, can we do something about this?

Anyway, read on and let me know what you think. What is YOUR balance between face2face and online communication, in both your personal and your professional lives?

Today’s balance
Sorry, IATEFL magazine. I have no internet access, so there will be no article.
My last minute attempt to write it on balancing this online thing in my life and in the classroom was jeopardised by God, who likes playing jokes on me, it seems. So, here’s my back-up plan then.
I do believe that teaching quality does not depend on any amount of online things a teacher uses in their lessons. To take this idea to the extreme, here are a couple examples, where computers were nowhere near the classroom, and yet the students learnt a lot.
I was observing classes as part of a training programme and one of the major problems we found in the teaching group was the exaggerated amount of unnecessary teacher-talking-time. The teaching task I set for the next day was for everybody to teach from 5 to 20 minutes without saying a word or using any “talking machines”, such as the tape recorder or any thingamajigs, apart from themselves, the board and the board-pen. I have hardly ever seen students involved so much in their learning. As soon as they realized that it was them who had to do the work - experimenting with the pronunciation, putting the right sentence together, and many other things - they were all the more engaged, took control of the learning process and were proud of their achievements. Teachers felt the thrill of it as well. They did a great job teaching new words and giving them written and spoken practice in these.
Another example is from Romania, a country where power cuts used to be quite frequent and regarded as normal to save energy. The teacher prepared a great listening, a story of an adventure holiday, to introduce the past simple to her elementary students. The second she wanted to press the play button the power was cut. The teacher then took a few seconds to say: “I’m going to tell you a story of my last summer holiday. There were three very interesting things that happened to me. Can you shout out a few ideas? What happened, do you think?” The students overcoming some kind of state of amazement started to come up with ideas slowly. “Listen to my story and try to find out what the three things were.”, the teacher then continued after praising the students for their ideas. And again, it turned into an even more engaging listening lesson with students listening carefully.
The amount of teaching and learning materials available online, however, is almost endless and it would be a shame if we disregarded them. It can make both teaching and learning effective, engaging, fun and even more varied.
Their obvious function would be in the classroom. Even if it’s only the teacher who has access to the internet, there are a number of further typical ways of making use of online resources for teaching purposes, which I’m sure all of you know of. From acquiring and printing full teaching materials on specific topics fairly quickly to being able to make your own crossword games for your students, including using the phonemic script, finding the right collocations through cobuild corpus, etc.
If you are lucky enough to work in a school where a computer lab is available, language teaching using online resources could be very much personalised. Students do the same activities, but at their own pace; there’s always another activity for early finishers, plenty of sites with wonderful games and activities to supplement your coursebook materials.
If there’s only one computer with online access connected to a projector in the classroom, one can use something that is quite appreciated by the students: the up-to-date listenings and lessons built around these. For example, use the news items of the day to maximise student motivation and engagement. Right-on. Can teachers plan around it on the spot? Is it user-friendly for all language teachers? Who would feel comfortable using it? Some would say that most probably only the well-qualified and experienced native teachers are the ones who are brave enough to do that, although even they might have problems setting up and using the computer with the projector. However, most English language teachers on earth are non-native. So how are you going to make them feel brave enough to deal with all those unknown words? There are no teacher’s books available to rely on. Are there any tools they could use to overcome their handicap, i.e. not knowing words that may appear in the article/video broadcast/podcast? Yes, they are right there. Their solution is to admit to their students that “this is an interesting word” and use online dictionaries to find out together what the meaning/connotation/pronunciation/preposition/collocation or whatever they might be looking for is. The teacher could also ask volunteer students to do the search. Students may know some searching methods we have never thought of. So why not use their computer knowledge as well?
The area where I think the use of online resources, could play the greatest role is learner training, i.e. making students aware of what practice sites there are available out there and how they could use them outside their classroom. How could I – including myself, a non-native English teacher and a language learner - improve my pronunciation, intonation, fluency, grammar, vocabulary, listening and reading skills, etc.? There are zillions of free sites online for all of these purposes.
Ultimately, it comes down to the responsibility of the Director of Education, Director of Studies or the senior teacher(s) of the specific languages to make their teachers aware of what useful sites there are in the ether and how this information could be passed on to their students in the given circumstances of the specific school. Our responsibility as language teachers is to try and use this knowledge to experiment with what works for us and what doesn’t. So feel free to find your balance together with your students. You can be just as great a language teacher without the internet. And for those of you who are hard-core onliners in the classroom, remember, you never know when the next power cut strikes. Talking and writing have proved to be good solutions in teaching for thousands of years.

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